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Snow left on roads causes flooding, brings salt and other pollutants to our lakes

• Feb 15, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Grand Haven residents are certainly familiar with how to handle being buried in snow. Residents all have favorite winter activities, be it cross-country skiing at Pigeon Creek Park, sledding at the dunes or hiding inside with hot cocoa.

They also know to anticipate the flooding caused by snowmelt, the rush of water caused by melting snow. But it can be easy to forget about a less visible consequence: snowmelt taking all the pollutants from the road — salt, sediment, fertilizer — for a ride and into the Grand River and surrounding bodies of water.

“Snowmelt has a great deal of sediment and other pollutants trapped in it,” said Carrie Rivette, wastewater and stormwater maintenance superintendent for the City of Grand Rapids.

Areas like grassy lawns are able to absorb the snow and filter out the pollutants. But any snow on the roads and sidewalks can’t be absorbed, and instead go either into a catch basin or directly into the watershed. Because we have built an infrastructure with so many places where snow can’t be absorbed, the snowmelt can quickly cause floods, which can also lead to soil erosion.

Once the snow melts, it only takes 15 minutes for the water to reach the Grand River and other bodies of water. All of the pollutants trapped in the snow goes with it.

As the snowmelt brings the sediment with it into the watershed, the water quality is affected. We’re starting to see chloritization in the Great Lakes, Rivette said, from the salt we put on our roads.

Salt, an important tool for winter safety, is unfortunately also one of the biggest pollutants trapped in snow. The salt on our roads are getting into our water systems and starting to make them more salty. This has a negative impact on our fish, as well as the rest of the ecosystem in our rivers and lakes.

Thankfully, there are three ways to minimize the effects of snowmelt. We need to be intentional about keeping the pollutants from getting to the snow to begin with; this begins by being aware of how much salt you are using on your driveway.

“Make sure you’re only using the amount of salt you need,” Rivette said. “That’s going directly to the environment.” It’s important to shovel and then salt, she said, and to only use the minimal amount of salt you need to stay safe.

Residents should also be aware of how much fertilizer they are using, and be intentional about picking up after their pets.

The greatest way to minimize the effect of snowmelt is to get snow onto an area where it can be absorbed, so that any pollutants that are in the snow can be filtered out. Residents can be intentional about shoveling snow onto their lawns, instead of just moving it to the sides of their driveways.

Green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, also make it easier for snow to be absorbed. Rain gardens are typically planted near the edge of a road or driveway, and make it easier for the ground to absorb runoff year-round.

“Stopping the water before it gets to systems minimizes the effects it has,” said Elaine Isely, the director of water programs here at WMEAC.

Unfortunately, often snowmelt does end up melting on the streets. When this happens, your neighborhood can flood pretty quickly.

That’s what catch basins are for. Catch basins, the grated holes on the edge of roads, are an easily forgettable part of our infrastructure, but the affect they have is major. They are everywhere, with more than 17,000 catch basins in nearby Grand Rapids, Rivette said.

By creating a place for snowmelt to go, catch basins minimize flooding, but they only work if they remain clear. Blocked catch basins quickly lead to flooded streets, and the extra water creates more icy conditions.

If you have a couple of extra minutes while shoveling your driveway, find your catch basin and clear it out. By doing so, you’re minimizing the chances of flooding, and saving yourself and your neighbors a headache in the long run.

As we survive, and enjoy, this winter together, it’s easy to do the little things. These little actions will add up to having a big impact on our neighborhoods and beautiful bodies of water.

About the writer: Madalyn Buursma is the eco-journalist intern at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC). She is currently a senior at Calvin College, where she is majoring in writing and minoring in both political science and Chinese. She also works as the features editor at the Calvin College Chimes.

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